Loving Your Spouse for a Lifetime
You already have a Catholic marriage. A sacrament. Your marriage, of course, is permanent. Catholic husbands and wives can take security and comfort in this fact.
Yet, within the permanence of lawful matrimony, it may be a constant challenge to respond to each other in loving ways. Christ commands us to love our neighbors, and there is no closer neighbor than your own spouse, with whom you live and are maintaining a family.
The challenge for married Catholics is to love one another not only with charity (as one does with temporary acquaintances, enemies, and colleagues) but in justice and as lifelong friends. How can you love your spouse with a true, deep, Christian love, while at the same time endure and actually enjoy the relationship for a lifetime?
St. Paul on Marriage
Your Catholic spouse requires your love, friendship, communication, and your affection. These qualities are due as a simple matter of justice. Running a household requires a lot of communication about bills, repairs, and so on. But the marital relationship itself requires a certain psychological sophistication that certainly was not lost on the apostles. Consider the following verse from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (Eph. 5:33): “Nevertheless let every one of you in particular love his wife as himself: and let the wife fear her husband.”
St. Paul could have simply written that couples are to love each other. But he didn’t do that. Instead, he zeroed in on the most salient parts of love that men and women need. He wrote that men are to “love” their wives as themselves, and women are to “fear” (respect and honor) their husbands. Men need respect, which makes them feel loved. Women need to be cherished, which makes them feel loved.
Consider the original context of the pertinent verbs in this verse. The English phonetization does not render well, especially without accent marks. Nonetheless, the rough exegesis of Greek, to Latin, to English, is the following: agapato = diligat = love (cherish or spiritual love); phobetai (or fovitai) = timeat = fear (respect).
The root of agapato is agape, which is spiritual love. There is a spiritual element to marital love, which is shown when Christ elevated it to a sacrament. To show someone spiritual love is to love the person for the sake of the God who created him or her. Cherish your wife, respect your husband, and your marriage will thus be one of lifelong friends.
Just as Christ and His one, true Church will not abandon each other, the bride and groom can never entertain the thought of abandoning one another, no matter how many years and tribulations pass. Consolations will eventually come. “Strive to remain patient,” wrote St. Ignatius of Loyola in the 16th century, “a virtue contrary to the troubles that harass you, and remember that you will be consoled.”
The Husband’s Role
St. Paul laid the philosophical (and practical) groundwork for a lifetime of spousal love in his letter to the Ephesians. St. Peter, as well, exhorted men to fulfill their marital roles: “Ye husbands, likewise dwelling with them according to knowledge, giving honour to the female as to the weaker vessel, and as to the co-heirs of the grace of life: that your prayers be not hindered” (I Pet. 3:7).
There is a lot of content in that one passage. First, St. Peter recognizes that men have to live with their wives. Then he exhorts men to give “honor” to their wives because of their “weaker” feminine state. But he immediately points out that they can get to Heaven just as men. The last point, and the most interesting to Catholic spirituality, is that if men do not honor their wives, St. Peter implies that the prayer life of husbands will be hindered.
This is a problem unique to the state of married men. You must first make sure your wife is taken care of, and then offer prayers to God with a clear mind. All prayer is efficacious, but your prayers will be hindered to the extent that you are not taking care of your marriage. This isn’t necessarily about money, either. It’s about leadership. Husbands can take pressure off their wives by spending time with the kids and disciplining them as needed. Many women appreciate this and it makes them feel taken care of. Give honor to the weaker vessel!
“The man,” wrote St. Francis de Sales in the early 17th century, “who wishes to have a happy married life ought to consider the sanctity and dignity of the Sacrament of Matrimony.” The saint was following up on the practical advice of St. Paul, who wrote that a man who does not take care of his own household “is worse than an infidel” (I Tim. 5:6).
Women represent the nurturing, emotionally connected side of matrimony. This is why they have been psychologically perceived throughout history as the “fairer” or “weaker” vessel. An emotional connection is a fragile thing; quiet masculine confidence is not so frail. Your wife needs your strength.
She needs you to love her with a spiritual love, “as Christ also loved the Church” (Eph. 5:25). This love will help you look beyond her shortcomings. Remember, you are wedded to this person for the rest of your life in a permanent, sacramental union. Your true role is to get her to Heaven, because she is your “co-heir.”
The Wife’s Role
Many Catholic families have clearly defined roles, which provides a stable level of comfort and security for everyone in the family. Life, however, is not always so simple. Things happen. Jobs are lost. Families are uprooted. Bills go up. It might seem that the foundation of your lifestyle is cracking beneath you. Perhaps these things happen so God can give you and your spouse a little nudge closer together and thus closer to Him. Is your marriage a material lifestyle or a sacrament?
Remember the wisdom of St. Paul: Respect your husband (Eph. 5:33). It’s easy to respect power. It’s a lot harder to respect weakness, but this is when your husband needs your love the most. Look for evidence of your husband’s strength. It’s there, but it may be buried beneath heaps of trivial matters that piled up over years of mundane living. Christ, however, transforms everything from drudgery to joy (cf. John 10:10; II Cor. 5:17).
Joy is a fruit of true friendship when the relationship is rooted in Christian charity. St. Therese of Lisieux pointed out the foundation of spiritual love in The Story of a Soul (chapter on “The way of love”). “[T]rue love feeds on sacrifice and becomes more pure and strong the more our natural satisfaction is denied.” Matrimony certainly needs natural affection (remember, you are not a nun), but it needs spiritual love even more.
Making your marriage endure as a lifetime of friendship requires spiritual love, rooted in respect for your husband. This respect must be important or St. Paul wouldn’t have urged it in his exhortation on marriage to the Ephesians. He did not simply say to love your spouse with an agape-love. This is what he told men to do. For women, he says to have phobos—fear of offending their husbands. Respect! From this attribute, spiritual love can grow. A couple with spiritual love for each other will certainly have a happy, peaceful household. “The soul who is in love with God,” wrote St. John of the Cross in the 16th century, “is a gentle, humble, and patient soul.” Make the earnest calling of St. Francis of Assisi in the early 13th century your own for your marriage. “We have been called,” the saint said, “to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way.”
You can build a strong connection with your husband on a foundation of respect for him. This respect will need to be practiced daily. Examples include holding your tongue, asking his advice, praising him in front of the kids, telling the kids you can’t wait to see him, waiting for his decision before you do anything major, never complaining about him to other women, and practicing submission to him.
Apply your respect for him on a daily basis and watch your marriage transform itself over time. As Blessed Margaret d’Youville wrote in the 18th century, “all the wealth in the world cannot be compared with the happiness of living together happily united.”
We will let Blessed Theophane Venard summarize these ideas with a closing thought from the 19th century: “Happiness is to be found only in the home where God is loved and honoured, where each one loves, and helps, and cares for the others.”
A lifetime of love is thus certainly within your reach.